Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Carolyn Campbell
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1. Create tension by rendering the lovers as opposing forces
A beginning flirtation is played out like a chess game. She makes a move, then waits for his next move. He in turn makes a move, which she tries to interpret before making her next move. In most cases, neither wants to move too directly or drastically. Neither wants to risk rejection or embarassment -- but attraction propels them onward. Then tension is like a boxing match, when one fighter delivers a hit, and the two opponents pace tensely before another blow is delivered. This tension heightens the urgency and immediacy of the scene, which also increases reader identification.
2. Get involved in your love scenes
Why do people read love scenes? Let's be honest here. Readers lose themselves in love scenes to make their own hearts race faster, to enhance their own breathless anticipation, and to feel their vulnerability in a harmless, exciting escape from their everyday lives. Put simply, readers love to imagine themselves in the place of the lovers. No other writing emerges so directly from the heart. Writing a scene that ignites your own passion and makes your own pulse quicken will help assure that your readers will feel that way, too. Readers pick up quickly on your sincerity and sense the "realness" of your thudding heart and speeding pulse. This could be the one practical use for those "makeout memories" of the times when you yourself thrilled to the ecstacy of kissing a forbidden someone in the back seat of a Chevy. Come on -- it wasn't that long ago. And your memory, imagination and writing skills can help recreate that excitement all over again in the scenes with your characters.
3. Keep the lovers in character
Your characters are the strength of your love scene. Their individuality will make your love scene unique if you keep their personalities true throughout the scene. A woman who is snappy-quick with a comeback won't suddenly become tongue-tied in a man's arms. And a man who persistently holds his feelings close to his vest will likely reflect his emotions internally rather than suddenly telling all within a woman's embrace. The blend of your character's personalities will shape the course of the love scene, too. The quick-comeback woman will toss out a barb that the private-person man will hold close to his heart. She'll respond with another tart comment and he'll clam up and clutch each word tight -- which will only prompt her cleverness more as she tries to decipher him. Your love scene will be one of a kind because your characters are individuals -- each as one-of-a kind as every living breathing person on this earth.
The issues relating to your story will impact and shape your love scene as well. Say the two lovers are competitors for the same office position -- or the same athletic title. The tension between them away from the love scene will build tension within the scene -- or maybe stop it short. "This won't have affect my performance tomorrow -- I'll still win the marathon," James assured Shana, attempting to gather her in his arms once again. "Don't be so sure," she said, backing deftly away, sharp hurt registering in her voice. "That wasn't what I meant--" he said quickly, but it was already too late. She was gone.
4. Raise sexual tension through conflict
While conflict is the heart of any great story, it is especially effective in the arena of love scenes. Conflict provides the reason why the two lovers can't simply ride a white horse off into the sunset the first moment they realize there is a strong attraction. Romantic conflict can be visualized as a locked door between two people trying to reach each other. It appears insurmountable -- but that doesn't dilute the longing or the urgency. In an actual scene, the man might be thinking, "She's a great kisser. If only she wasn't urging my boss to fire me."
Or she could be realizing, "I could really fall in love with him -- if I didn't know he was going to prison next week." Don't worry that conflict will add a "dark" element to the euphoria of a love scene. Passion possesses a natural "dark" undercurrent which is an element of its excitement.
5. Reveal sexual attraction through contrast
Along with conflict, contrast can help the reader visualize the sexual chemistry while the characters pretend to deny it. In my book, Love Lost and Found, the scene that begins this article ends with Cheryl saying, "Go away. I can't see you again." while inside she's thinking, Don't go. Please take me with you. It could be as simple as the man saying, "Don't touch me," while inwardly he is thinking. Don't stop. Don't ever stop. The contrast can also be reflected through the dialogue of one character contrasted with the thoughts of another. The woman could say, "I'm here to discuss business," while the man's inner thoughts are , "I wish the two of us could get down to business." Again, the contrast between spoken dialogue and internal thoughts and feelings underscores the conflict between the two characters which creates the sexual tension.
Along with thoughts, a character's actions can be used to reveal true feelings. A woman who deliberately steps close enough for a man to grab her before she says, "You can't stop me from leaving," and a man who says how hot the weather is as he stares at a woman's bikini-clad figure are examples of how actions speak louder than words.
5. Build suspense, anticipation and intensity
Just as a one-night stand lacks the time-endurance to be considered a serious romantic relationship, a love scene requires time for the tension to build. The suspense is the same as any other conflict-it escalates as the reader is continually forced to wonder if-and when-the lovers will ever get together. In the scene at the beginning of this article, the two lovers were childhood friends who grew up on adjacent farms. They spent months staring longingly at each other across their father's bean fields. Two lovers might work in the same company, live in the same apartment building, protest the same issue, litigate the same crime -- but a love scene is most effective after they've had time to interact -- and most likely disagree -- on other matters. The dance of "will-they, won't they" as the reader begins to suspect the attraction between the two characters, helps build suspense and anticipation in both the characters and the reader. It's like holding your breath while waiting for a bomb to go off.
6. Heighten the characters' five senses
In real life, the euphoria of new love enhances the lover's five senses and actually creates a sensual feast from his formerly everyday world. Colors seem brighter, songs acquire new meaning and clarity, even smells are enhanced and enlivened. Applying this principle to your love scenes -- especially during the passionate moments -- will impart reader identification and empathy with the activities at hand. A woman feels intoxicated by a man's aftershave or his clean, natural male smell. A man is entranced by the silken feel of a woman's hair against his cheek or feels an electric charge from her lips brushing his ear.
Following a kiss in a love scene from my book, Love Lost and Found, my main character, Cheryl, concentrated on the soft cotton of his shirt, the light breeze of his breath ruffling her hair and his work-roughened hand gently stroking her face.
Besides the actual lovers, the sensory details of settings in a love scene can enhance the romantic mood. Breezes feel like a sensuous massage, rain hauntingly caresses, streams flow in a soothing rhythm, sunlight teasingly bathes desire-warmed skin. Around the lovers, autumn's leaves' colors are brighter, song lyrics hold personal meaning, and spring air is imbued with the sweet scent of anticipation. She tastes the mint on his lips and he finds the scent of her perfume unforgettable as he returns to the office.
On rare occasions, the setting can also be used to underscore the individual moods of the characters. The woman can stare through a rain-drenched window as she sadly watches the man walk away. The man and woman ecstatically ride a wild horse to the top of a mountain where they daringly kiss at the edge of a cliff.
7. Reveal relationship status and character changes
Along with customizing a love scene by including the personalities of your characters and the issues surrounding them, you can also reveal the status of the relationship through the climate of the love scene. Early in a relationship, love scenes still include the elements of flirtation -- verbal innuendoes, laughing, teasing, possibly nervousness and tentativeness. In a continuing relationship, lovers are more relaxed with one another. As the relationship progresses, they are more likely to verbally express their love and talk of tenderness and possibly commitment.
8. Tantalize with temporary togetherness
As effective as they are as plot devices, love scenes have their limitations. Along with unique characters, believable settings and realistic dialogue... there are certain predictable elements. A touch usually leads to a kiss...which leads to more touching... which eventually leads to a culmination.... or not. One way to help keep the reader involved in the love scene is to not belabor it with clinical details. Even a lengthy description of romance that leaves your reader feeling ravished doesn't need to read like an owner's manual of body parts. Use writing that suggests rather than describes in detail, and let the reader use her imagination. "His fingers inched farther along the smoothness of her skin. Deeper. Lower. She gasped in anticipation." Notice that no specific body parts are mentioned, and the verbiage is actually more cerebral than anatomical. If you do describe specific body parts, keep the sexual tension alive by describing your characters' physical attributes in close proximity. (As they would actually view each other during the scene) Focus on the sexy curve of her breast overflowing her swimsuit top, the rough masculine feel of his bearded face on the rounded sleekness of her shoulder. Keep in mind that what characters are thinking and feeling is infinitely more enticing than a description of their body parts. Relating thoughts and feelings helps preserve your character's personalities along with the suspense as to where the scene will lead.
9. Turn up the heat (and the speed) with touch
Beyond all the flirtatious words and anticipation, nothing changes a platonic interlude into a love scene more than the first physical moment of touch. The characters can be two colleagues working on the same scientific experiment, two neighbors who have each lost a spouse, two detectives seeking to solve the same murder... until one of them makes a move to touch the other. By rendering the initial... and subsequent... physical togetherness in sensuous detail, the writer allows both reader and characters to feel their senses awaken, and understand that the relationship has now moved to a new sensuous realm. For example, in the movie, Erin Brockovich, Julia Roberts plays a character whose main concern is professional and financial survival. Reflecting on her past as Miss Wichita, Brockovich says, "I still have my tiara. I thought it meant I would be someone." She obviously is referring to fame, or professional success. At that moment, Aaron Eckhart, playing the character of George, Brockovich's helpful next door neighbor, strides across the room. He grasps her shoulders, and strokes her arms down to her elbows, simultaneously saying, "You're someone to me." His tone of voice isn't even flirtatious. But with that single touch, the atmosphere charges with sensual heat, and the love scene that follows seems totally apt, although the two were just cordial neighbors moments earlier. Besides moving the scene into a sensual realm, touch also accelerates the couple's emotional intimacy.
10. Make love a difficult choice to heighten the emotions
A dramatic situation or conflict that is keeping the lovers apart can also heighten the emotional climate of the scene. If one of the characters must choose to make a sacrifice to pursue the relationship, the drama of that decision will heighten the tension in the love scene. Say the woman must choose to give up a scholarship or once-in-a-lifetime job opportunity to continue the relationship. Or say that the man risks losing his hard-won independence by marrying the secretary in a business his family owns. The greater the sacrifice and risk, the more the emotions will be heightened.
11. Captivate with close calls
While love scenes inherently feel like a culmination and resolution, an open ending to a love scene paves the way for further suspense. Just like a high school girl practically perishes with suspense when a boy she's passionately kissed the night before pretends not to know her the next day, the reader will wonder if the lovers will ever embrace again as the book continues.
Such suspense and uncertainty is also created and enhanced when a love scene stops before culmination. As in the scene that introduces this article, the most effective way to maintain tension and prematurely end a love scene is for one of the characters to decide that this is somehow the wrong moment. In the above sense, Cheryl desperately loves Davey... but feels she must stay married for the sake of her kids. A man might passionately kiss a woman, then say, "I didn't mean for this to happen now... not yet," while she is thinking, Why not now?
12. Kiss your story good-bye
As expressions of affection and conflict resolution, love scenes are natural endings. Many old-fashioned movies simply concluded with violin background music and the leading man and lady locked in a tight "clinch." In any love scene you write, and especially if you decide to end your book with a couple's embrace, try to keep dialogue a part of the mix. Today's readers tend to skip over blocks of black type, and you might be surprised what your characters say (and do) to each other. As Joyce Davis, a mainstream author told her writing group, " My two characters went to bed together without asking me." Hopefully, your characters will keep you -- and your reader -- equally surprised and enthralled.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Carolyn Campbell has published more than 600 articles in national magazines. Her articles have also been published internationally in China, Japan, Germany, England, Denmark and Australia. Campbell is the author of Together Again: True Stories Of Birth Parents and Adopted Children Reunited and Love Lost and Found: True Stories of Long Lost Loves Reunited At Last, and Reunited: True Stories of Long Lost Siblings Who Found Each Other. Campbell lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, with her husband and four children.